When You Have No Idea What It’s Saying…

I’ve written about Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” here before, and I have a full lesson on it here. It’s a great story, and it’s one I teach frequently to people learning English.

But, there’s a problem I’ve seen again and again.

It starts early, by the second paragraph:

Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.

The first paragraph is fine; Leonard Mead enjoys walking out alone at night in this world of 2053 AD. Got it. Even the first sentence above — he’d walk “for hours and miles,” sure. But then, look at the next sentence. Do you see the challenge? Many times by this point, a student says, “What?” Are we in a graveyard? What are “glimmers of firefly light” or “flickers”? “Phantoms,” “manifest upon inner room walls”?

The issue is not just vocabulary, though some of these words may not be common or immediately known. Vocabulary can be dealt with in context. The challenge here is poetry.

The language itself becomes poetic. We’re in a simile, a comparison. Walking on this street “was not unequal to walking through a graveyard,” meaning: Walking on this street was equal to, was “like” walking in a graveyard. The flickers of light are described like fireflies, and ghosts (phantoms) seemed to appear. We maybe hear “whisperings and murmurs,” and a building is described as “tomb-like.”

All of this is hypothetical — maybe, usually. And there is so much figurative, not literal description here. What’s happening literally? It’s dark. It’s creepy. There are no people around. It feels like everything’s dead. There are small “flickers” of light coming from the houses, but very little sound.

So, what do you do when you’re reading a text like this and you have no idea what it’s saying?

One strategy is to “dig in.” I see students do this a lot, especially while reading in a second language. You already feel unconfident in your reading, already anticipating those words you won’t know. The underlying thought is, “I should know more vocabulary.” or “My English isn’t that good.” or “I should work more on my English.”

So when you come across these passages, you’re frustrated. You find the dictionary and look up every word, write definitions above the words on the page. I can see the intensity in your eyes. You dig in and try to solve the puzzle like a watchmaker fixing every tiny part of a watch’s gears with the tiniest screwdriver. Your eyes are strained and tired; you have a headache. You back away from the story and need to take a breath.

Here’s another way: You realize, “This is poetry,” and so you read it that way. You step back from the words. You see the whole paragraph like looking at the Earth from space, the whole, round image of it. You picture what you do know from the words, the images that you see without any intense digging. You take a breath and let your mind and heart and body take it in. Look for the words you do understand. You might be surprised at how much you see without understanding every word.

Then go back to the text. Pinpoint a couple of phrases that are really mystifying. Look up a word or two, still with the goal of seeing the whole image, not getting hung up on every meaning like you’re decoding a legal brief or reading a real estate contract.

A story is poetic, a creative piece. Remember the author is not arguing a point or trying to communicate logical information from A to Z. Remember the author is describing something, creating a mood, a feeling, showing you a world, a person. Your goal as the reader is to see, feel, hear, take in those images and feelings and senses — not to pick apart every word.

The meaning goes beyond the words; the words are only the signs on paper that create a whole world. Your job is to understand the world. Reading poetry is feeling, sensing, seeing — different from logical understanding.

Now, I know that if you really don’t know those words, you’re not going to see the images, not going to understand enough to picture it. Yes, that’s true. So there’s a balance between the “big,” Earth-level view and the intensive, picky, “watch-maker” view. The key is to remember that balance and let yourself shift between ways of reading.

And remember, even native speakers read literature and struggle to understand everything. Native speakers read literature and don’t know every word, sometimes many of the words. In our native language, we tend to skip over what we don’t understand and don’t even realize it. I’ll ask native-speaker students, “Do you know the meaning of ______,” whatever word is in the piece, and many times, they realize, “Oh, no, I don’t.” When we talk about it, they understand the passage differently, get a different “shade” to what they understood before. This is a normal process of reading, whether or not you’re reading in your native language or a second one.

So, give yourself a break. It’s important to find texts that verge on challenging but not frustrating. Texts are enjoyable when you can read much of them easily but encounter new words, ideas, structures. I try to strike that balance with students, listen to where they struggle and understand their reading level in choosing texts.

But the “level” of the text is only half the battle; the mind that reads the text is the other. The more you understand how your mind engages with a text, that you’re engaging in normal “struggles” any reader would have, or can equip yourself with reading strategies, you can not only use reading to build your language, but you’ll enjoy reading more.


Interested in doing this kind of reading work? Send me a message and let me know what you’d like to work on, how I can help! I offer private lessons and small group courses.


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The Power of I, Too

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” first of all, has all the qualities I look for in a poem for English learners. The vocabulary is not too challenging, though there are some interesting word choices to think about. The length is manageable for reading and discussion in the same sitting. In fact, instead of struggling with too many words — and too many new words — all at once, the English learner can take in the text of the poem and get to the deeper realm of discussion of history, of culture of life, of society, of humanity, which is actually much more challenging. Isn’t that kind of conversation why we’re here, why we’re learning langauge in the first place? To connect. To experience the world through a slightly different lens. To experience the world through another language and immerse in the culture it carries.

And this poem does carry so much history, culture, and meaning in its few words. I recently read that Julia Alvarez, herself a bicultural, bilingual person, read this poem when she was young. She had, with her family, escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and landed in New York City an immigrant, “different.” As she read the poem in a school textbook, she realized that she, too, could make a life in this country and could be a writer. (Here is a lesson on her piece “Snow,” all about being an immigrant and loving language.)

I think about people right now, maybe you, who might be in the US in a similar situation and who will read this poem and think — yes — I, too. Maybe you’re in another country reading in English, and this poem can do for you what great literature does: gives a valuable glimpse into another culture and country without even getting on a plane. This poem asks: What does it mean to be an “American”? Who is included, and should be? What is the ideal vision of this country?

This question of who belongs can be found in every culture, every human group. So can writing, literature, art, which explores those essential questions. I think about Hughes writing this poem and Julia Alvarez reading it as a girl, and another student somewhere reading it now, I am, again, astonished at that cloth of connection through generations, at the power of literature, of poetry.

Why do poets write, and why do we read? I think, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, for love — of words or an idea or a phrase that goes out into the world to become “part of the human gain.” Poets write and artists create not to get much for themselves but to send something out, to add another strand to the tapestry. Poets speak — for themselves, for others. There is value in saying. There’s value in imagining. In this poem, there is the gain of solidarity in saying “I, Too,” and a declaration, a vision of a country of equality, of valuing every person at the table.

We may learn another language to get a better job or to communicate at the grocery store or bus stop. But why do we really learn language, beyond its utilitarian function? I think deep down our motivations are a lot more akin to poetry — to connect, to speak to other people we wouldn’t have been able to speak to, to more thoroughly know our world. So for me, reading literature to learn language isn’t a luxury or too academic or too difficult — it’s at the heart of why we speak and an insight into a language’s depths.

Read more and see the lesson on this poem here.

Thanks for reading!

This month, December 2020, on Instagram, I’m doing a series on the value of poets & poetry. I’ll share posts with poems about poetry and short video reading/discussion of the poems. Head on over & follow along!

How Studying Sound in Poetry Can Help Language Learning

I just wrote this lesson on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” While I’m trying to include diverse, contemporary literature on my site (which helps make literature more accessible, especially for language learners), this poem is just so beautiful, so I had to include it.

And as I started to write, I found myself pulled to making a whole section about analyzing the most un-contemporary quality of this poem: its meter and rhyme scheme. Most poets today don’t write in form. And analyzing these elements is exactly the sort of thing that makes students fall asleep, that seemingly takes the joy out of poetry in school. That’s what I want to avoid here! So why do this analysis?

Of course we can read the poem and enjoy it without thinking about its meter. But I suppose it’s like any literary device that we stop and take time to notice: a certain amount of analysis, of understanding what the poet is doing, or how the poem works, can add to our appreciation of it. When you understand the tools and possibilities of poetry, you understand and appreciate its artistry. You notice things that add to your enjoyment.

Even more important for the langauge learner, you can focus in on elements of language — sound and rhyme and rhythm — that add to your knowledge and appreciation of English. Like painters who revel in the color and texture and smell of paint (this is a reference to Annie Dillard, by the way), poets revel in words, in language and how it works. As a poet myself, I always love meeting students who are learning English and who have discovered that joy, seem fascinated by the sound of words, how they can rhyme, how one word can resonate with many shades of meaning.

So in “Stopping by Woods,” analyzing the rhyme scheme can make you more aware as you read, as your ear tunes to the rhyming sounds in English. While imagining the scene of the poem, you’ll feel the beats, the syllables, and you’ll hear the rhythm of this particular combination of English words. You’ll start to feel how that music actually helps you “see” the images. As you listen and feel the langauge, your ear absorbs subtleties you might not even be conscious of, like our brains are made to learn language as children. You practice listening closely — to the workings of the language itself — rather than just grasping for the literal meaning and analyzing it rationally, as you would in everyday communication.

Ready to dive in? Read more of the lesson here!

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Tending to Raw Spots

I was talking to a student the other day who said she relies on visual art because she feels like a weak writer. But she knows the audience needs words, or that her art would be stronger with solid writing. So by seeking out teaching, she’s inviting growth. She’s willfully beginning a process, she knows will be challenging.

I admire that willingness: to ask for help, to invest in learning, to begin a process that you know will challenge and push and frustrate you.

I know that growth begins with the small, delicate things. Seeds, eggs, sprouts, baby creatures learning to scoot then crawl then walk. Growth begins in things that are unripe, raw, just emerged. Growth is inevitable. Yet it is so difficult, espeically as adult people, to even become aware of, to admit (both: to say out loud and to allow) the vulnerable places in ourselves.

Logicially, I know that people who do things really well are constantly learning. A friend who speaks another language almost to native proficiency for years carried around a dictionary to constantly study words and pronunciations, look up synonyms. A master teacher I admire is constantly attending workshops, trying new teaching methods, exploring new lessons to bring into the classroom, and refines her approach after each class. People who embrace growth are willing to say, “I don’t know; let me look it up,” and so they become masterful in thousands of small, willful actions.

On the other hand, many people who avoid learning, who don’t want to admit they don’t know how to pronounce x word, don’t ever grow, won’t ever learn to pronounce it. And so they remain stagnant. Instead of seeking growth, we often defend our delicate spots and become fearfully protective of them instead of opening them to the fresh air of exploration and tending, like letting a wound breathe.

So I, as a poet ever-interested in language, was looking for a word to describe these places in ourselves that feel so vulnerable, and settled on “raw.” Why raw?

source: Dictionary.com

This is why I love language. I was trying to find a word: weak, vulnerable, sensitive, undeveloped, unripe. None of these seemed exactly right. I wanted a word that meant both unfinished and sensitive, almost painful. I was picturing a soft spot on fruit, a bruise or small cut on an arm that keeps getting prodded.

Life does that, right? It keeps prodding us, poking those weak places, those vulnerabilities, until we notice and tend to them. It prods until we stop pushing up our hands in defense and begin the process of healing and new growth. We might call these “weaknesses,” but they’re weak only because they haven’t been through “processes of … finishing, refining.” They’re painfully open and exposed, just asking to be addressed. They’re unprocessed, unevaluated, inexperienced, untrained — which means they can be, they’re waiting to be processed, evaluated, experienced, and trained.

And these untrained, undeveloped parts of us are “grossly frank.” They’re painful, calling our attention, and we must be grossly honest to acknowledge them. Kids are so brutally honest in that way. They haven’t learned the adult, socialized way of polite white lies or ignoring what should politely be ignored. They stare at people and speak up and comment on whatever is happening. If these raw parts of ourselves are like small children ready to grow and experience, they can serve us in the same way — by forcing us to be brutally honest with ourselves about who we are, where we are, who we’d like to be, what we’d like to be able to do. Raw in one sense means unadorned, uncovered by our usual ways of performing our competence. Raw is brutally, honestly, saying “I don’t know.”

And children are also usually unabashedly curious and courageous in learning; they fall and stumble and recover quickly. They poke around and get excited, like my friend learning language, my friend thinking of new ideas for her classroom. Maybe we develop more fear as adults in exposing ourselves to falls and wounds. There’s a courageousness, a verve in children learning to ride a bike or take on a new skill. There usually isn’t shame in not knowing — but joy in gaining something new, gaining a new ability, being enabled to do new things.

Learning is difficult. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. To begin, first we have to admit to “I don’t know” or “I need guidance.” But that utterance frees so much new potential. In the pain and sensitivity in those tender spots, the not-yet-developed state, there’s this excitement of what will be. When we begin to feel that “click” or resonance of new knowledge, seeing in a new way, how good that process of work and becoming feels, even when it’s a struggle. We can hide in defensiveness and protection, or we can open up those raw spots to air and move forward, imagining the small seedling one day bloomed.


See more about my work with learning: language, literature, mindfulness.

How Poetry Can Heal Language Learning Anxiety

A student recently reminded me of something unique about poetry. We were reading a poem out loud, and her first observation was, “You read that much more slowly than I did.” She explained that when she speaks or reads in English, she feels pressure to be “fast,” to not make any mistakes, to pronounce everything “correctly.”

Her observation reminded me of my own language learning anxiety. When I speak Spanish, sometimes I can feel my whole body tensing up with that fear of not being able to understand, or speaking too slowly, or making mistakes and “sounding stupid.” Sometimes I become so self-conscious that I make even more mistakes, constantly correcting myself as I’m speaking. Fue, no fui, a la, no, a el, supermercado. A simple sentence can turn into a stuttering mess — on top of my frenetic, hurrying energy, imagining an impatient listener.

Yes, I admit to this constant anxiety, even as I reassure English students that native speakers of any language make “mistakes” all the time, or that communication is about so much more than just the words you’re using, or that the listener isn’t thinking about your grammar; they just want to understand what you’re expressing. I know all this, and yet the anxiety of speaking in a non-native langauge is real.

Some people find poetry intimidating. And yet, poetry is supposed to be slow and savored. That quality alone can make reading poetry a welcome respite for the English leaner. Unlike the point-A-to-point-B goal of everyday conversation that is supposed to rattle on quickly, in poetry every word counts, is chosen carefully. Poets can spend years working on one poem, playing with words until it sounds right. So as readers, when we read slowly, we honor and appreciate that work. We take time to sense the meaning that lies under the words, like taking in music. We can pronounce slowly, even play with pronunciation, take time to decipher a new word, linger on each line, each space or pause on the page. We can read several times and take in a little more understanding each time, not pressured to “get it” all on the first read-through.

Poetry slows us down, in the midst of a fast-moving, impatient daily life, daily interaction. What a relief for those of us immersed in foreign sounds everyday, challenged with the pressure of a still uncertain language every time we go to the supermarket or say hello on the street. A relief, too, for those committed learners battling with grammar textbooks, with getting it “right.” The pleasure of curling up with a short poem with only the goal to listen and appreciate and soak in language, to love language, is a welcome balm.


Here are a few suggestions of poems to savor today. Look for lessons on these soon.


For more on how to read poetry and savor it, check out my course “How to Read Poetry With Your Whole Self.”

For poetry, literature, creative writing help in English, contact me about tutoring.

If you’d like to join others reading poetry around the world, follow the Global English Book Club on Instagram.